"Fast & Furious 6" has become a road race to riches without a finish line in sight.
Roaring into theaters Friday, the movie is expected to generate $80 million or more over the Memorial Day weekend — astounding numbers for a franchise that is more than a decade old, and isn't "Star Wars" or "Indiana Jones."
Even more astonishing, Universal's "Fast" films are the rare series that seem to pick up steam with each new sequel. And with its multi-ethnic cast and foreign settings, it's been hailed as a model for how to build a franchise that can appeal to audiences across the globe.
But what is lost in all the hype is that the cars and criminals series almost sputtered to a stop before it could kick off its latest victory lap, with some at Universal fretting the series had run out of gas after its first two installments: The studio even considered releasing sequels on DVD without a theatrical run.
Instead of throwing the race, Universal decided to give the films a new look and direction — with a crucial assist from original series star, Vin Diesel.
"The talk internally was that the franchise was played out," Jeffrey Kirschenbaum, Universal Pictures co-president of production, told TheWrap. "At that point we were weighing whether to go straight to video or not for future sequels. We weren't sure what we were going to do."
The makeover returned the series to its heist roots and played down the underground street racing scenes that had dominated the second and third installments.
After the original cast was jettisoned and the action moved to Japan in "The Fast and The Furious: Tokyo Drift, the movie still tested respectably with audiences despite all the changes. Yet Universal felt that the sequel needed more pop.
To that end, Universal Chairman Adam Fogelson and Co-Chairman Donna Langley prevailed upon Diesel to return to the series that helped make him a star, if only for a fleeting cameo. The response from preview audiences to his few minutes of screen time was electric, Kirschenbaum recalls.
"It was like a rock concert," he said. "The audience went ballistic."
Kirschenbaum said that the reaction gave Universal the confidence to effectively reboot the series with its original crew of racers, cops and thieves including star Paul Walker. At the same time, the studio decided to drill down into those elements that set it apart from summer blockbusters headlined by white males, namely a cast that included Asian, African-American and Latino actors like Chris "Ludacris" Bridges, Michelle Rodriguez and Sung Kang.
"We're the Benetton of casting," Kirschenbaum said. "We're one of the few franchises that has Spanish spoken throughout it."
The result is a cast that looks like many of today's moviegoers — social media savvy, ethnic and frequently bilingual.
The new strategy reached its apotheosis with "Fast Five," which added Dwayne Johnson to mix, set the film in Rio and drew more than $632 million worldwide, nearly $270 million more than what the next highest grossing film in the franchise had netted. Internationally the film continued to pick up steam, more than doubling the previous high-water mark for foreign grosses on a "Fast" film.
"They have done a brilliant job of managing and expanding this franchise with a principle for international success — set it exotic, make it erotic," Bill Block, founder and CEO of the film production company QED International, said.
Analysts predict that "Fast & Furious 6," which exports the action to the United Kingdom and the Canary Islands, could top them all and gross more than $700 million globally.
"They’ve managed to make each movie better than the last," Kevin Goetz, chief executive office of the movie market research firm Screen Engine, told TheWrap. "Each sequel feels cool and distinctive and that's rare. I've worked on a lot of franchises that just simply diminish with each film. With 'Fast' they seem to be re-imagining the series with every installment."
The studio's inclusive approach to casting has turned out to be smart business: Latinos make up 17 percent of the population in the United States and Canada, but comprise 26 percent of ticket buyers, according to a recent study by the Motion Picture Association of America.
Moreover, the movie business grows more globalized each year with foreign markets accounting for 70 percent of the overall box office, making the "Fast" franchise's international approach the envy of other studios.
"Fast Five" was able to target the Latino community, which represented 33 percent of its U.S. audience. With the return of Rodriguez, Universal hopes to pull off a similar opening for "Fast & Furious 6." To aid the cause, a Spanish-speaking Diesel presented footage from the film at the Billboard Latin Music Awards.
"Their marketing never feels like pandering; Latinos go to the 'Fast' movies because they’re included," Alex Nogales, president and CEO of the advocacy group, the National Hispanic Media Coalition, told TheWrap. "When you look at this kind of attendance, we hope that studios will become emboldened and it will serve as a lesson to filmmakers about what the Latino moviegoing public can do."
The "Fast" films have also outraced the pack with social media outreach on Facebook and Twitter. Universal said it gave "Fast & Furious 6" the largest social media campaign for any film in its history, successfully building its digital support group from five million Facebook fans when "Fast Five" opened in 2011 to 34 million fans to date.
The cast itself as played the important role as ambassadors for the series, regularly tweeting about the film and interacting with fans. It helps that Diesel boasts 42 million Facebook "likes" on his official page, while Johnson has attracted over 4 million followers on Twitter.
Online feedback has influenced the films, too. Fan requests on Twitter and Facebook led the "Fast" team to revive Rodriguez's character after she had apparently been killed off in the fourth film and helped spur Universal's decision to accelerate shooting on the next film. Now, part seven will hit theaters in 2014 instead of slogging through the standard multi-year hiatus between "Fast" productions.
According to Kirschenbaum, the most frequent feedback it receives is desire for less lag time between installments: He said fans keep saying after the release of each "Fast" film, "we want to see the next movie right now, we don't want to wait."
Even rival producers tip their hats to the "Fast" franchise. J.C. Spinks, the executive producer of "We're the Millers" and "The Hangover III," which goes up against "The Fast & The Furious 6" at the box office this weekend, praised the series' longevity and the producers' push to keep topping themselves.
"It's a well-oiled machine," he said. "A lot of movie franchises get to three. Not too many get to six."